Canopy Family | New York Times: In Panama, Nobody Here but 289 Birds

New York Times, Travel Section (excerpts)
By Mary Tannen
April 21, 2002

I NEVER thought I’d come face to face with an ocellated antbird. In fact, until the day before, I hadn’t even known there was such a thing. But here it was, with its mate, scratching around in the leaves just a few feet away. It was about bluebird size, with a ring of blue around its eye and an intricate pattern of spots on its brown back and breast. A genuine rara avis! I had come upon it while walking along a paved road cut into the side of the hill that put me at eye level with the forest floor. Obviously not your average road. It was the private drive leading up to Canopy Tower lodge, a converted radar tower rising out of the rain forest of the 50,000-acre Soberanía National Park in Panama, and a mecca for bird enthusiasts.

As far as birders go, I’m of the casual variety, but I had joined a tropical bird workshop organized in January by Wendy Paulson, a naturalist who leads bird walks in Central Park for the Nature Conservancy. Also with us was Ken Rosenberg, director of the conservation program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and eight amateur birders of various levels of proficiency. Then there was my husband, Mike, who isn’t a birder, and had been concerned that a four-day stay at the lodge would be “too birdy,” but who had come after some arm twisting. While I was encountering my antbirds (and two spectacular tanagers), Mike was happily prowling the old section of Panama City with the owner and manager of Canopy Tower, Raúl Arias de Para, an entrepreneur, a conservationist and, like Mike, a history buff…

One morning before dawn we hopped aboard a comfortable bus hired for the occasion and drove a couple of hours to the Caribbean side, where the bus let us out on narrow Achiote Road. This unlikely setting is the prime birding site in Panama, where more than 340 species are counted during the annual 24-hour Atlantic Christmas Bird Count. Ken got out of the bus saying he wanted to see the spot-crowned barbet, which would be a first for him, and within minutes one obediently flew into a tree across the road. There were mealy parrots, orange-chinned parakeets, a flock of more than 100 swallowtail kites, two white hawks fighting overhead, a whole family of howler monkeys — a constantly changing show…

The next day Mike led me and another renegade birder on an Indiana Jones adventure: kayaking across the Chagres to find a 500-year-old Spanish road that was used during the Gold Rush of 1848 to carry gold from the Pacific to the Atlantic…

Those who had stayed at the lodge didn’t regret their choice. They sat on deck and watched the birds come. On the last night, looking around the lounge with its hammocks, sofas and nature library, I dreamed of returning — maybe in the rainy season — and spending more time just holed up in the tower, reading, making notes and observing the array of hummingbirds at the feeders.

In the immediate vicinity alone, 289 species have been recorded, and in four days I had seen more than a hundred. There are still plenty left — and I wouldn’t mind a second look at that ocellated antbird.

Read the whole article in the New York Times:
In Panama, Nobody Here but 289 Birds.

Copyright © 2002 The New York Times Company

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